Candrea keeps team challenged

ATHENS, Greece -- Mike Candrea is the Joe Torre of women's softball. Without the divas.

Think of it: Team USA has the most feared pitching staff in the world, a defense that takes it as a personal affront when a player reaches base and a dynamic offense that can produce runs from any part of the lineup.

"Does he have a difficult job?" second baseman Lovieanne Jung pondered after the United States shut out Australia 5-0 on Sunday. "No. Maybe during practice, but when we get out on the field, he lets us play the way we know how to play."

The United States plays host to Australia in the gold medal game Monday.

So when it comes to assessing how in the name of Orel Hershiser this team has been able to shut out every opponent in these Olympics -- 49 innings over eight games -- one need look no further than the practice field.

Yes, Dream Teams do need practice.

Candrea's mantra is repeated over and over by his players -- defense wins championships. That's why he spends a majority of practice time on defending different plays with runners on base before he sets the women loose on the batting cages. But his main focus has less to do with fundamentals than it does with preparation, both tactical and mental.

"Biggest challenge of my job has been to make this team realize that they can get better, that we can raise the bar, and the only way we're going to do it is to really commit to excellence, not so much in games but in practice," he said. "We have some kids that are very talented but still have a long ways to grow as far as understanding the game. So I take a lot of pride in that. I think this team is very well prepared."

That "very well" may be an understatement. In their first meeting, the U.S. beat Australia 10-0 in a game that was called by the mercy rule after the top of the fifth. Lisa Fernandez held the Aussies to one hit. Despite the dominance, when Team USA faced Australia on Sunday, Fernandez changed her approach and threw more changeups. Australia touched her for three hits over seven innings.

"We spend a lot of time preparing for games," Candrea said. "A whole different approach, a whole different game plan. She's one step ahead of the opponent. And that's what makes this pitching staff so special."

Australia deserves a little credit, too.

Practice and preparation became more important to Team USA after they lost three games during the 2000 Games in Sydney and when the pitcher's circle was moved from 40 feet to 43 feet from home plate soon afterward.

The circle was moved to generate more offense. It made Team USA practice harder.

"A lot of the athletes we have now have been playing the game at 43 feet year round, which has made our team stronger," Fernandez said. "Because of what happened in 2000, our commitment to the game has elevated because we realized how close our opponents were getting to us."

The closest opponents to them in this Olympics have been Japan and Taiwan; each limited the Americans to just three runs. They've averaged more than one strikeout an inning -- thanks mostly to Cat Osterman's 23 in 14⅔ innings of work -- and they've scored more runs through eight games in these Olympics (46) than they did through nine games in 1996 (41).

Yet Candrea, along with his assistants Ken Eriksen and John Rittman, will have broken down every tendency and nuance Australia may have displayed Sunday, looking for something new, something they can exploit in Monday's matchup.

"Coach Candrea has made sure that our preparation has been so thorough, and it continues to be, daily," first baseman Leah O'Brien-Amico said. "We've done our homework and we've worked hard, and I think now we're able to go out and play the game the way it should be played."